The New Normal vs Hope for a Better Future

People adapt. This is a powerful fact of human psychology that hands us the problem of shifting baselines. When circumstances change, people come to accept a new normal. Even jarring changes, such as the blitz on London during World War II, might shock people at first. Yet after a time, people come to accept a “new normal” and get on with their lives. Thus, on a number of fronts, we are living with a tension – between acceptance of a harsh reality and hope for a better future.

Thousands of people are dying from COVID-19 every day. Will we just get used to it? Or insist upon believing that we can do better?

Black and Hispanic people live with systemic racism every day. Is this simply the order of things? Or does the arc of the universe bend toward justice?

Obesity affecting 43 percent of American adults makes us especially vulnerable to this pandemic – not to mention other chronic diseases. Will obesity prevalence continue to climb as we rely on ineffective prevention strategies? Will health policy keep putting effective obesity care out of reach for the people affected? Or instead, can we hope for better options?

These are questions that weigh upon us.

Psychological Immunity

It turns out that we have a psychological immune system to help us adapt to harsh circumstances. In fact, this observation is one of the most robust findings in psychological science. Daniel Gilbert et al published a classic paper on this in 1998. Consistently, people overestimate the enduring impact of losing something dear to them. Or lasting joy from attaining something they long for. But in fact, we adapt to a new baseline.

In the London Blitz, people did indeed keep calm and carry on. Bombs were falling daily, but life went on. A new normal took hold. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, explains:

There is a tremendous amount of research showing that we tend to adapt to circumstances if they are constant over time, even if they are gradually worsening.

Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant. You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.

Hope and Inspiration

The antidote to the problem of shifting baselines is the hope for something better. We gain hope from inspired leadership. Even as we adapt to a harsh reality, good leadership can lead us to believe that something better is possible. And the collective action that results can move us toward that better future.

People living in London did adapt to bombs falling on them daily. But they remained resolute about prevailing against the threat they faced. Today, we’ve learned a lot about COVID-19. Some countries have shown us effective strategies to suppress it. Health care professionals are getting better at treating it. And we have hope for the possibility of beating it back through a vaccine and other measures.

Inspired leaders in the movement for civil rights dealt with the reality of racism. Nonetheless, they pushed forward with the insistence on defeating it. Just as another generation is doing today in the movement to make Black lives matter.

Likewise, we are making progress toward more respect for people living with obesity, better options for obesity care, and prevention strategies that will actually work. In every case, though, the progress is slower than we would like.

A Better Future

The tension between pragmatism and idealism will always be with us. Pragmatism, aided by our psychological immune system, helps us survive. Idealism equips us to hope for something better and make it real. Inspired leadership takes us there. Let’s all hope for more of that.

Click here and here for more on the problem of shifting baselines. For insight on inspired leadership, we suggest this tribute to the great John Lewis.

Hope, painting from a series by Jacek Malczewski, Three Heads / WikiArt

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July 19, 2020